Saturday, September 15, 2007

Plucky Little Vessel

Following up on a comment from Canadian J.M. Heinrichs on this post, has been fascinating.

To set the scene, there has been a series of media pieces recently about how the North West Passage is free of ice for the first time "since records began", or "in recorded history", depending on the media. Even this morning on BBC Radio 4's Today programme they aired a piece using the "since records began" motif, then moved seamlessly into a look at how people thought of the NWP in the 15th and 16th centuries, and how they hoped in vain to be able to navigate it, as though this period was encompassed in the timescale of "records". It isn't - records began in 1972.

But the impression given is that the NWP has never, in human history, been navigable. Certainly it wasn't in the 15th and 16th centuries, but then these were in the early part of what is now called the "Little Ice Age".

On May 7, 1928 the RCMP vessel St Roch was launched. She had been designed "specifically for the RCMP to patrol the Arctic. The ship was named after the Quebec east riding of Ernest Lapointe, then Federal Minister of Justice responsible for the RCMP."

Between 1940 and 1942, she became the first vessel to sail the NWP from west to east. This was more difficult than the reverse direction, east to west, which she completed in just one year, in 1944. This had previously been sailed by Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, in 1906, but Amundsen took three years. By the way, it was a lot colder in 1906 - almost as cold as the mid-1960s.

St Roch was also the first vessel to circumnavigate North America.

So, this "impenetrable" passage was sailed in 1903-6 east to west, 1940-2 west to east, and in 1944 east to west again.

But hey, that was all a long time ago, so maybe the climate alarmists can be forgiven for not being aware of it.

Maybe not. Canadians are proud of the St Roch, and she is an exhibit at the Canadian National Maritime Museum. You can take a virtual tour here. But she's in a poor condition and needs refurbishment so in 2000, to raise funds:

the twin hulled aluminum catamaran Nadon was rechristened St. Roch II for the retracing of the epic first transit west to east, of the Northwest passage by the original wooden RCMP schooner St. Roch more than half a century ago.
It was quite a voyage:
July1, 2000 - December 16, 2000
A 169 day voyage across the top of the world,through the Nothwest Passage and around North America, that covered 24,000 nautical miles, visited 7 provinces, 3 territories and 7 countries
So. The North West Passage has never been navigable, except in 1906, 1940, 1944 and 2000.

We're all doomed.

UPDATE: If you want to know more about the St Roch, there's a book about her. I mean, seriously now, ten minutes with Google or five with Amazon and you know the current crop of stories are bullshit. What's going on here?

UPDATE2: An error of year comparison deleted.

UPDATE3: Guess what. The BBC speaks with forked tongue.

UPDATE4: Oh, NWP also navigated in 1977 and 2005. See here.


Anonymous said...

There was a song/poem about searching for the North West Passage through 'a land so wild and savage'. When I heard it, it was done in an mournful accent.

The implication of the song was that there wasn't one, and they all died horribly in the ice. How they got back to sing about it, I know not.

Found the words here

Mark Wadsworth said...

FBJ, that is what I call research!

Just imagine your common or garden BBC fuckwit actually trawled the Interweb for quarter of an hour before putting out their crap ...

Peter Risdon said...

They didn't even search their own website.

Anonymous said...

Amundsen didn't exactly sail through the NWP. IIRC they were frozen in quite a bit and Amundsen himself turned up in Alaska with a dogsled.

But as far as records go in a looser sense -- written observations -- the ice in the arctic has varied wildly over the centuries.

Peter Risdon said...

Amundsen did complete the passage. It took three years because they were ice bound for so much of the time.

Anonymous said...

No - that would have reduced the crossing of the NWP to 1 1/2 years, overwintering at Gjoahaven. The NWP has also recently been completed by a small UK boat (crew 3) who were amateurs - it was written up in PBO magazine. This traverse is not unusual.

However, the NWP referred to is not the one that hugs the Canadian coast line (following broadly the same path as Amundsen, possibly using the Bellot Strait). It is the obvious one - going westward continue along Viscount Melville Sound to the North of Victoria Island. This one has not been frequently navigated (without icebreakers). It is arguable whether it has been open or not - McClure saw open water in 1852 - but if it is now regularly ice free in the summer then it is a sign that the ice is retreating.

However, the ice retreated in the early 1800s as well, and we're still here :)